New research identifies early risk factors for child depression
The Sector > Research > Early risk factors for childhood depression identified in new research

Early risk factors for childhood depression identified in new research

by Freya Lucas

July 03, 2024

While it’s normal for children to experience variations in mood, persistent feelings of sadness, loneliness, grouchiness or anger can be signs of childhood depression, a University of Alberta Professor has noted. 


Professor Yuliya Kotelnikova hopes that her insights will support educators, parents and caregivers to learn more about how to identify the difference between regular emotional fluctuations and something potentially more serious. 


It’s not always easy to differentiate between a temporary dark mood or something deeper, the professor said, particularly when children lack the self awareness or language to share their emotions. 


Adding to the confusion is the fact that parents, educators and caregivers typically filter their child’s behaviour through the lens of their own mood or perception, or misread a child’s feelings based on their own biases such as ‘they are just acting like that for attention’ or ‘they are just trying to get their own way.’


A child could be interpreted as ‘acting out’ or challenging the rules, where in fact they are feeling helpless or frustrated, but lack the language and emotional recognition to express themselves. 


To help a child who is unhappy, Professor Kotelnikova advises keeping relationships between these components in mind while engaging in collaborative discussion with a child, encouraging them to identify and describe what they are thinking and feeling.


“When a caregiver takes this approach, they can shift seeing behaviours in children as a ‘problem’ to viewing their child as struggling because they lack the skills to manage their distress on their own,” she added.


Signs to watch for


Professor Kotelnikova recommends observing children’s behaviour and evaluating it against the following key criteria; 




Changes in a child’s typical behaviour are often the first noticeable signs of depression, she began. 


That may include losing interest in activities a child normally enjoys, refusing to go to childcare or school, withdrawing from family and friends and disruptions in normal routines, like forgetting to brush teeth or bathe. Changes in eating habits, altered sleeping patterns, notably reduced ability to concentrate and a lack of enthusiasm for play or socializing may also indicate depression.




Especially as children become older and feel the need to meet societal expectations, they can become frustrated with themselves and engage in negative self-talk, a habit that can become reflexive for someone struggling with depression. 


Frequent and persistent negative thoughts, such as, “I’m stupid,” “I can’t do this as well as my friends,” or, “They don’t like me,” could be cause for concern, says Kotelnikova, as they may reinforce a child’s sense of hopelessness and helplessness.


Conversations with a child about what’s going on in their mind are crucial for determining the extent of negative self-talk and what steps may be necessary to address it. 


The best approach includes open-ended questions that require more elaboration than simple yes or no answers. Examples might include, “When you feel sad, what kinds of thoughts do you have about yourself?” or “How do you talk to yourself when you’re frustrated and want to give up?”


Feelings and physical sensations


When a young child experiences negative emotions as sensations in the body — such as tummy aches, headaches, sore muscles, not feeling well or being too tired to play — it could be because they lack the words to articulate what’s on their mind, the professor explained. A caregiver can guide a child in understanding feelings as sources of physical sensations.


Together, the caregiver and child can develop a common language to describe feelings and physical sensations. Some examples of caregiver prompts might include, “What do you think your body is trying to say to you when your tummy feels upset before you meet new people?” or, “How does your body feel when you are sad? What about when you are angry? How is it different?”

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